Dear Attorney Tully: My gentleman friend and I are traditionalists who would prefer to be married rather than to live together. However, if we were to get married, we would take a financial hit that might strain our finances. How would you advise someone in our situation?
Answer: More and more seniors are living together without getting married. According to U.S. Census data, the number of cohabiting seniors more than doubled since 1989. For some seniors, marriage isn’t financially worth it – they don’t want to lose their former spouses’ military, pension, or Social Security benefits. Other seniors don’t want to have to pay their partners’ medical expenses or deal with the objections of children worried about their inheritance.
There are risks to cohabiting without marriage, however. You have no rights with regard to your partner’s health care decisions. In addition, you may be considered “common law” married by a court after you die, possibly causing a dispute between your partner and your children. If you and your partner plan to live together without getting married, you can take a number of steps to ensure that you are protected and that your wishes are followed.
Sign a cohabitation agreement. If you live in a state that recognizes common law marriage, or even if you don’t (some courts have recognized the rights of unmarried partners who live together in non-common law states), you may want to enter into a cohabitation agreement with your partner. The agreement can state your intentions not to marry or to make any claims against each other. It can also specify the division of household expenses and what will happen to your house in the case of death or breakup. You should consult a lawyer for assistance in drawing up an agreement.
Provide access to health decision-making. If you are not married, you have no right to participate in your partner’s health care decisions or even, in some circumstances, to visit your partner at the hospital. To avoid this situation, you need several documents. You can sign a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) medical release to allow each other access to the other’s medical information. In addition, you should have a health care representative and/or a durable Power of Attorney naming your partner as your agent to make health care decisions.
Sign a durable power of attorney. A power of attorney allows your partner, or whomever you appoint, to make financial decisions for you if you become incapacitated. Without a power of attorney, the court will have to appoint a conservator or guardian to make those decisions and the judge may not choose the person you would prefer.
Update your will. Your will should be clear about what happens to your possessions when you die, including your house and its contents. It is particularly important to specify what will happen to your house if it is owned by only one partner.
Think about the tax consequences of gifts. Married couples can leave each other as much as they want without paying estate taxes; unmarried couples cannot. If you want to leave money to your partner, consult an estate planning attorney or tax expert to find ways to limit estate taxes.
Look into registering as domestic partners. Some cities and states have domestic partnership laws, which may allow unmarried couples to take advantage of their partners’ health insurance or to participate in health care decisions.
Your financial concerns are legitimate. You should always consult with an estate planning attorney so that you and your partner are legally protected and so that your wishes are honored.